Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The First Day in Orientation to the Study of Religion

By Sean McCloud

“Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).”

“Everything seems to be up in the air at this time.” --Camper van Beethoven, The Ambiguity Song

Our undergraduate major in religious studies requires that students take a class in theories and methods within the first year of declaring their major. We call it “Orientation to the Study of Religion.” We work a lot on writing, speaking, and reading skills in it, including how to construct and support a thesis argument, how to cite sources, what questions to ask when reading a text, and how to present research and lead discussions on readings. The class is offered every semester and we have between fifteen and twenty students enrolled. Three or four of us in a department of thirteen tend to trade off teaching the course annually. We have no set canon of readings for the class. Different instructors will have slightly different readings, though there will often be overlap, author-wise. I taught it for the past two semesters, and my reading lists included Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Victor Turner, Bruce Lincoln, Meredith McGuire, Pierre Bourdieu, Sarah Pike, JZ Smith, Robert Orsi, Judith Richardson, and others.

Many, and some semesters most, of our students enter the class having absolutely no idea what it will be about. Many find their way into the major by taking a course with one of our professors, loving it, declaring the major, and the next semester sitting in the theories and methods class. While a few know that this will introduce them to some approaches in the academic study of religion, some students think it will be a world religions course, others that it will be a ministerial practicum (we are located in the American southeast). For the most part, everything seems to be up in the air on the first day. Because of this, I have found it useful to use about a third of the first class meeting (after introducing ourselves, looking at the syllabus, and working in groups on definitions of “religion”—the class meets once a week for two hours and forty-five minutes) discussing four points about the academic study of religion.  I should note here that these are my points, and I am certain that some of my department colleagues and readers of this blog will disagree with some things in them. But I ask students to keep these in mind (if not on their desks) as the semester progresses. They are:

1. The academic study of religion is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary.  It primarily uses historical, sociological, anthropological, literary, and philosophical methods, but others too. In other words, there are lots of ways to study what gets called “religion.”

2. One thing that we do not do in the academic study of religion is theology, in which religion is examined from a particular religious point of view.  We may study theologies as primary sources for analysis, but never as a secondary source for thesis arguments. Given this, the arguments scholars make who study religion academically can be equally persuasive to people regardless of whether they self-identify as religious or non-religious. 

3. In other words, the study of religion does not involve examining the “truth” of religious concepts and practices, nor does it require the belief, practice, or disbelief in any religions or supernatural being(s). Instead, the study of religion is the study of humans, in groups and as individuals, and what they think and do that they, or we, call “religion.”  Our task is to try to figure out what, how, and why they think and do what they do. It means stepping back from our personal preferences, likes and dislikes, and examining the subject at hand.

4. The academic study of religion also acknowledges that there isn’t simply a “thing” out there called “religion,” but rather that religion is a term that has many meanings, is a word that is contested, and that there are many conceptions of religion proposed by both scholars and religious practitioners. A definition of religion can help us focus on certain aspects of the social world, but always at the expense of other aspects.   

Do these four points immediately have the effect of explaining the boundaries and approaches we will have in class?  Not even close. Each statement needs unpacked, words defined, examples given. It is only a starting point, a broad guide to the semester’s work that must be demonstrated, not just stated. But it is a start . . .

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Teaching Critical Theory Requires No Name

By James Dennis LoRusso

I must admit that in all of my years of as a student, I never once heard a professor utter the phrase “critical theory.”  Perhaps this was merely a product of my chosen fields of study.  As an undergraduate majoring in history with a concentration in the Ancient Mediterranean, I encountered little social theory, and the little to which I was exposed was generally presented implicitly.  After all, it proves difficult enough for an undergraduate to grasp the basics of Ancient Greek and Roman political institutions, much less how modern scholars have framed the historical record.  Furthermore, religious studies, despite its best attempts to the contrary, tends to more often privilege essentialist perspectives, which emphasize coherence and historical continuity. 

Yet, over the years, I nonetheless acquired the habit of practicing “critical theory,” the recognition that the categories by which we organize our world utterly remain products of the time and space in which we are immersed.  And it is the practice of critical theory, of course, that touches the central aim in this blog.  How do we, as teachers, cultivate the practice of critical theory inside and outside the classroom?

Max Horkheimer suggests that critical theory seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.”  In revealing our most basic assumptions as historically constructed, we become capable of making different choices and, so the argument goes, can improve our circumstances.  However, I want to emphasize that, as instructors in the humanities, we can leverage critical theory pedagogically (without necessarily labeling it as such) to facilitate some of the most effective, nuanced learning moments in the classroom.

For example, as a graduate student in religion, I routinely have taught introductory courses on informal logic for undergraduates.  One of the skills that students found particularly difficult to grasp was the differentiating between the “validity” of an argument and the “soundness” of its conclusion.  While “validity” merely indicates that an argument is logically correct, “soundness” can only describe an argument that is both logically correct and true. 

While the typical instructor will ask students to evaluate a short tract on a topic like capital punishment or abortion, I preferred an alternative tactic.  Instead of providing them with some tired essay on what are rather controversial topics, I would have my students read an excerpt from Eric Rudolph’s written statement to the court upon his sentencing.  To the surprise of many students, Rudolph, the so-called “Olympic Park Bomber,” demonstrates a remarkable ability to string together “valid” arguments to make his case.  Of course, this only implies that some of his conclusions might be inferred from various premises, but for students, the shock that a “domestic terrorist” might exhibit any semblance of mental acuity proves destabilizing enough to make room for a discussion about the assumptions each of us draw upon to makes sense of “reality.” 

Not only must we evaluate the “soundness” of Rudolph’s claims, but we also get the opportunity to ask ourselves: what assumptions are we making to declare that his justifications for resorting to violence are, indeed, false?  In the end, we find that determining truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or sound from unsound is no easy task, and that it can never be divorced from the social, the historical, and the political location of the key players, including ourselves.  This is critical theory.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Cadaver Synod: Or, a Slightly Optimistic Pre-Mortem Autopsy of University Teaching Practices (part two)

By Clinton Thomas Bland

(Click here for part one)

1. You are not the most important person in the room. The conference environment breeds bad habits. Short speeches disguised as questions, questions which boil down to: “but what do you think of me?” This approach is fine for conferences, but not for the classroom. Your main concern is not what you think, but what your students think, and why they think it. You are the expert, of course, but your attitude needs to be one of help and care, not of right and wrong. What do you want them to know? What questions should they be able to ask? What skill or knowledge set are they learning today and how are you going to scaffold and differentiate* it so that everyone achieves it? Your students don’t want a lecture on how brilliant your ideas are. They want you to explain those ideas in the context of other ideas in a way they can understand. They want help making their own meaning—this is not the same thing as accepting your meaning. They pay good money to listen to you, so listen to them.

2. You can always improve.  The university classroom lends itself to lecturing. This is not a problem if you are a brilliant lecturer. Unfortunately, most professors are not Carl Sagan. This is the same line of advice that posits that you shouldn’t tell jokes if you aren’t funny. If kids are falling asleep, it’s for one of two reasons: they are hung over, or you are boring and therefore failing. Being boring is not a sin, but it is a death sentence for student engagement and learning. Videotape yourself lecturing. If you’re like me, you’ll be appalled. The only choice is to try new strategies. Having letters after your name is not the equivalent of being a good teacher. You, me, everybody, once sucked at something. Respect is not earned with a degree. It’s okay. You have those letters because you got better. P.S. The lecture has its place, but that place is not day to day.

3. Your students will follow you if you give them a reason to. It is cliché to say that great teachers inspire, but that’s what it boils down to, especially in areas like religion, degrees for which place the people who hold them at an economic disadvantage; critical thinking is not a skill that can be marketed like EXCEL. Thus, it is your job to make students believe that what you teach is valuable. Just saying this isn’t enough. You need to make connections for them and have them make their own. This is something that I do every day. The Hobbit, which I read with my kids, has very little to do with anything they encounter in their day to day lives, but once it’s made clear to them that there are issues of race and gender woven throughout it, that yes, you can make  connection, however fanciful between the Alamo and Thorin’s last stand (Texas history is taught in seventh grade), the text comes to life. Whether we like it or not, we have to make everything we teach matter to them in their world now. The days of knowledge for its own sake are largely over, we have to economize everything and sneak in the critical thinking.

  4. They need to be able to talk to each other. The ideas they bounce off you are just as important as the one they bounce off their peers. We call it “Think-Pair-Share”, and it’s a teacher’s best friend. It helps shy kids get over the shyness. It forces them to refine their ideas before throwing them out to the whole class—seriously, try it and see how quickly that one kid with the inane ideas who loves the sound of his own voice starts to taper off his hand-raising so the kid in the back can talk. The know-it-all has just been edited and you didn’t even have to do anything. You’ll get better comments, you’ll have fuller discussions, and you’ll foster a more egalitarian sensibility in your classes because everyone will be heard every day by at least one other person—we call them shoulder buddies because everything in elementary and secondary education has to have a name.

5. Formative assessment is the most important assessment. This is something that one sees almost none of at the university level. How often do you find out what your students did and didn’t learn only after they’ve bombed the test? It’s demoralizing for you, for them, and it means (if you’re a nice professor who cares) a lot of remediation and office hours that could have been spent on other things being monopolized by criers and grade-grubbers. Formative assessment helps you recalibrate and you don’t even have to grade it—in fact, you’re not supposed to. It goes like this: almost every day, my students spend the last five minutes or so writing and reflecting about what they learned. Sometimes I give them a specific question: What are the roles of religion and science in The Wendigo? Sometimes I give them a vague one: What are you confused by? What do you want to know more about? Sometimes they write questions for me. These brief, written pieces allow me to rethink my lesson plans in almost real time and allow the students to feel that they’ve been heard. When it comes time for a test, I can feel confident that they won’t self-immolate, because I know they know the material. Students are happy when they’re challenged, and they’re even happier when they get an A.

6. Treat your learning data with the same importance as your research data.
Scholars are good at reflecting on what their reading, field work and experimentation has told them. If they dedicated a quarter of the same energy to why the grades fell the way they did at the end of the term, their lives would be better, and maybe the ones who hate teaching would find it more rewarding. Data tells you what you’ve done well, and what you’ve whiffed. If you strengthen the weaknesses, your students will be happier and you’ll get better reviews and people will start to see what you do as valuable. This is crucial in humanities where the ethereal nature of what we teach is easily seen as fat to be trimmed at budget time.

7. They like technology (some of the time).
If you have the resources to incorporate it into lessons, do it. But don’t overdo it. I have thirty iPads in my classroom, but we don’t use them every day. Physical products have meaning, and are often beautiful, but if it can be done with an app or online faster and easier, take advantage of it. They also need to move around. If you can think of an activity that has them up and out of their seats, use it.

8. They need to know that you're prepared and happy to see them. They can tell when you're unprepared and not happy to see them. Being an expert on a topic is not the same as being a person who can engage young people for fifty minutes on that same topic. And… if you think of teaching as a burden, maybe don’t take a job that involves teaching. Yes, academia is primarily focused on the production of knowledge, but I really do wish that hiring committees would make it clear that the transfer of that knowledge face-to-face and the love for that process is wildly important. Candidates who don’t agree need to seek other employment.
9. A lesson plan is not constituted solely of a reading selection and a list of questions. Design and content are not the same thing. You know what you want them to know, but how are you going to get them to know it? If your answer is a reading selection, a lecture and a whole group discussion every day of the semester, you’re doing it wrong.  Just do a quick search: activities for teaching _____________.  Somebody will likely have already done all of the work for you. Change it up. Make it fun. Hell, do an art project once in a while. I only wish I’d thought to use Instagram in the college classes I taught. The more your classroom feels like the classrooms they came from, especially when they’re freshman, the happier they’ll be and the more engaged they’ll be. They’ll learn more and you will look good. Yes, some students thrive in the reading/lecture/whole group discussion paradigm. They are called graduate students, and as 30 Rock has taught us, they are the worst. Resist the urge to cater to this learning style in undergraduate courses. 

That is all I have to say to you. These are effective strategies. I know because I ran them by my kids first. If you use them you’ll be doing a better job and your students will perform better. I don’t want to beat up the corpse of the university (see title), or to burn it down. I want to save it. I just happen to believe that a large part of that mission happens in the classroom, not the lab or the field. We can improve the lot of the university by improving the teaching that happens there, by adding more value in the classroom. I hate to boil so much of this discussion down to simple economics, I really do, but please don’t blame me. You can address complaints to that nice building on the newer part of campus—it has a sign that says “School of Business” hanging over the door.


Clint Bland teaches gifted and talented seventh grade English in Colleyville, Texas. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University and holds an MA in religious studies from The University of Kansas. He continues to be interested in religion, but now focuses mainly on gifted education advocacy, educational equity for underserved and disadvantaged gifted kids, curriculum design, and humanities integration. You can follow him on the Twitter @ClintBlandHMS

*These are fancy words. Loosely translated, they mean: your students are having their needs met based on prior knowledge, talent level, learning styles, demographics, etc.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Cadaver Synod: Or, a Slightly Optimistic Pre-Mortem Autopsy of University Teaching Practices

By Clinton Thomas Bland

(This is the first of a two-part post.)

Two years ago I made a decision that many graduate students, still holding out hope for a view from the penthouse in the Ivory Tower would find unthinkable: I dropped out of my PhD program in religious studies with about a year left. This decision was easy for me. I now teach seventh grade English. Many factors played into this decision. I was generally unhappy with my geography; I was poor; and, as luck would have it, I was a good teacher and a bad researcher. An audience of nine is not a publishing outcome that interested me, but I did like hanging out with kids and talking about books and movies. I like my current job very much and the money I make as a public servant is about on par with what many newly-minted assistant professors can expect to be offered, significantly more in some cases. This is a nice situation for me, especially because I was, in spite of my intelligence, never going to be an assistant professor. I’m not cut out for it. Now I have the pleasure of working with a group of about fifty highly-gifted twelve year-olds, of seeing them grow up, learn to think a little more for themselves, and, if it works out, of seeing them start to appreciate the fact that Kurt Vonnegut did it first, better, and briefer when he wrote Harrison Bergeron, a forerunner to all the dystopian clutter that is today’s young adult lit landscape.

When they leave the middle school at which I teach, I believe that they are passing into good hands across the street at the high school. The teachers there are just as dedicated as I am. More so perhaps, because the dramas they deal with on a daily basis are more profound, more life-and-death. In my classroom I do not see much in the way of drug use, pregnancy, violence (admittedly, I teach in a fairly wealthy suburb of Dallas with a progressive administration). Twelve year-olds are not that worldly… their beliefs about the above subjects tend to align with categorical errors they learned from television. The high school is filled with caring adults, experts in their craft and in their subject matter. These adults want to see their students attend college. But when their students are admitted to institutions of higher learning, a deep disconnect is exposed—kids who got good grades, mastered skills, passed AP tests, and performed serviceably on the SAT, are suddenly deemed not college ready. They struggled, they are shunted into remedial classes for which they pay (often with borrowed money) but do not receive credit. They fall through the cracks. It is not the university’s fault. They are simply not “college material” after all. 

I am writing under the assumption that it is not the kids who are not college ready, but the colleges that are not kid ready. Every potential college student ought to ask themselves a simple set of questions: why would I go into debt to pay for an education that will not meet my needs and then blame me for its failure to do so? Is an education that, for at least the first two years, consists of online courses (now proven disasters—thank you MOOCS!), classes taught by underpaid graduate students or adjuncts (some of whom will not speak very good English or may even be homeless) with maybe a week’s worth of teacher training, huge lectures (and I do mean lectures) worth the thousands of dollars I will spend on it? Is it worth it to go into debt only to enter the smoking ruins of the job market four years later with little more than a piece of paper, a receipt for services not rendered? Shouldn’t I, the student, the one who makes the idea of the university possible, who finances much of its activity, be able to demand better? For public school teachers, like me, these are easy to answer. For those in academia, especially those who value their autonomy, and sabbaticals, and light teaching loads, they will be read as an affront. Well, they are meant to be. I work in the only sphere that is now more beleaguered than the Tower. Teachers older than me have changed their thinking and their practice to meet the needs of each new class. It is time that those tasked with teaching them after they leave my territory do the same.  

My failure to show deference is meant to be shocking. Those in academia need the shock. Your careers will eventually depend on it, and frankly, you owe it to your students. I know I’m not failing my kids; but politicians and corporatists want to insist the opposite. Public school teachers are an easy target. The next head scheduled for the wall is the professor’s, so pay attention. The students you reach, really reach, with your teaching will be your best advocates in the future, so they need to feel like they got their money’s worth in your class. If we’re going to save the university and teaching, we need to make sure that are students leave us with fond memories and clear path to economic stability. Adapt or die. Fight smarter, etc. Everybody here likes metaphors…
What follows is not a prescription for the entire system. I am not going to reform the university any more than I am going to be an assistant professor of religion. I can’t solve bloated administration costs (I’m looking at you, vice associate dean of assistant dean recruitment and retention), the NCAA, the money grubbing folks at The College Board, Arne Duncan, or the brain drain of the PhD glut of the Battle of the Blackwater. Sorry. Nor am I indicting those university teaching faculty and staff who do regularly reflect on their classroom practices with an eye toward improving how they meet student needs. Much of what I’m going to expound on is simply a list of my own early sins. I use the second person largely because I am talking to the younger, dumber me. This is a cheat sheet, a list of learning characteristics your current and future students have, and that you need to integrate into your teaching to better your outcomes if they need bettering. Feel free to excoriate me in the comments. Once you’ve been yelled at by a helicopter parent whom you are legally obligated to not yell back at, or had your head cut-and-pasted onto something satanic (One Direction), you gain some perspective. Onward…

(Part two will be posted on Thursday)

Friday, June 6, 2014

Assuming Identity

By Monica Miller

 On the first day of each of my classes, I ask students a simple question: What pronoun do you prefer? Usually, the question is met with giggles. A few faces are left looking bewildered. And, a few others offer an accidental smile from the feeling of the cogs slowly turning in their heads. Based on the initial responses to the question—not the answer, but the visceral, embodied responses—I have a brief moment to make sense of where critical engagement might begin, how it will unfold, and what it will engage.

Of course, the question of if a person prefers “he/him/his,” “she/her/hers” or “they/them/theirs” and so on is important in the first instance as an instructor, because assuming a student’s gender identity (along with other categories of “difference”) or misrecognizing how they choose to identify could cause a student to shut down for the semester or too easily allow them to epistemologically buy into a method of self-evidence. So, I attempt to turn this practical need into a critical teaching moment. I try to trouble an assumption that most students hold and bring with them when they walk into the classroom: that gender (or race, etc) is fixed, rigid, given—and whether socially or biologically registered, easily determined. Gender identifications, like all other “operational acts of identity,” are far from fixed, and so to those still giggling and to the whole class, I ask: Would you refer to an engineering major as a humanities major? How would you know if you didn’t ask?  So why are we so quick to assume—due to a linguistic rule coming from English’s gendering of pronouns and a “seeing is believing” approach—that we know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about (and to) other people?  

The exercise, and the first meeting, usually ends with students already critically reflecting on assumed and inherited ideas that uncritically become naturalized over time. They tend to leave, if nothing else, questioning what they can or do know about others and on what accounts their knowledge is grounded. Usually, this knowledge ends up directed at their own “identity”: What pronoun do I prefer? And how does my preference relate to the choices and preferences of my classmates? How did I arrive at those preferences? Where did I learn them from? Why is it that I rarely question or reflexively analyze them?

It is towards this sort of example that we continually refer back throughout the semester, as we think about epistemology, meaning, religion and identity and difference, and theory and method.